It was going to be Jerrelle Benimon's show.
Towson's star forward knew it, his coach knew it and much of the announced crowd of 4,051 at Baltimore Arena probably sensed it as well.
Seeking to advance to its first-ever Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship game and take the next big step in the program’s revival, second-seeded Towson trailed William and Mary throughout Sunday night’s second half.
“It’s about to get ugly,” Benimon, the two-time CAA Player of the Year, shouted to no one in particular as he ran back on defense after converting a difficult shot with 12:01 left.
It did get ugly, but not in the way the senior imagined. With Towson trailing by two points, Benimon was swarmed by defenders on a drive to the basket and lost the ball with 5.5 seconds left to preserve third-seeded William and Mary’s 75-71 victory in the semifinal matchup.
Benimon leaned down and slapped the floor with both hands in frustration.
Afterward, Benimon, who scored 18 points, wore a look of disbelief at Towson missing the opportunity to not only win a CAA tournament in its home region, but to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991. He kept staring at the ceiling and brushing his hands over his face during Towson’s postgame press conference.
“I’m the biggest sore loser ever,” he told a reporter after the news conference.
The Tribe, which has never played in the NCAA tournament, advanced to Monday night’s championship game against top-seeded Delaware. The Blue Hens beat Northeastern, 87-74, in Sunday’s earlier semifinal. Delaware shot 76 percent in the second half.
Monday’s winner receives an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
Towson (23-10), which finished 1-31 two seasons ago, will wait to see if it receives a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.
“We’ll sweat it out for a week and then be in some postseason tournament,” Tigers coach Pat Skerry said.
Skerry became emotional – pausing momentarily to compose himself – when discussing the abrupt tournament finish for Benimon and his three other senior starters.
“They’ve been everything,” he said.
Skerry didn’t apologize for allowing Benimon, who was called three times for traveling during the game, to try to carry the team at the end.
“I said all week we’re going to ride him,” the coach said.
Trailing, 73-71, the Tigers took possession after William and Mary’s Brandon Britt missed a 3-pointer with 23 seconds left. Towson guard Rafriel Guthrie heaved a long pass downcourt to Marcus Damas that went out of bounds.
After a review, the officials ruled that neither Damas nor his Tribe defender had established control, and the alternate possession arrow pointed to Towson.
William and Mary players converged on Benimon on his drive, and the player fumbled the ball.
“I usually never get stripped. I usually have strong hands,” he said.
Two free throws by Marcus Thornton (21 points), the Tribe’s all-CAA first-team guard, sealed the outcome.
Benimon, the nation’s rebounding leader, had five rebounds Sunday. He shot 7-for-13 from the floor.
“I thought we did a great job on him, quite honestly,” William and Mary coach Tony Shaver said. “That last possession ... our team defense was perfect. Five men stopped that play right there.”
The crowd and the seeding had marginally favored Towson, but little is predictable in the CAA, in which the slimmest of margins separate the top teams.
More than half of CAA games (37 of 72) played during the regular season were decided by seven points or less or went into overtime. Eight days earlier, the Tigers had defeated William and Mary by two points.
“I thought it was en extremely high-level basketball game,” Shaver said. “We just couldn’t be much tougher than we were tonight.”
William and Mary shot 60 percent in the second half and was 11-for-22 on 3-pointers.
“We didn’t have the type of night we normally have defensively,” Skerry said. “We expected it to be a 40-minute war. It was.”
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